A Death in the Woods
Sherwood Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio, in 1876. Anderson’s father, a charismatic Union Army veteran, ran a harness-making business. When that venture failed, he began drinking heavily and was reduced to working a series of low-paying odd jobs for the rest of his life. Anderson ended up shouldering a fair share of the family responsibilities, working so many part-time jobs that he earned the nickname “Jobby.” At about age sixteen, Anderson dropped out of high school and left the family farm for Chicago, where he worked for several years as a manual laborer. He briefly served in the Spanish-American War, and, upon his return to the United States in 1900, he completed his secondary school education.
During the next ten years, Anderson built a solidly middle-class life for himself, working in various business ventures and marrying Cornelia Lane, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, with whom he fathered three children. At night, however, Anderson pursued the literary work that would someday make him famous. The competing demands of his personal, business, and artistic lives took a heavy toll in 1912, when Anderson suffered a mental collapse. After his recovery in 1913, he moved his family to Chicago, where he enjoyed much success as an advertising copywriter and later as an author. In the early 1920s, he left the corporate world, as well as any pretensions he may have had toward a respectably bourgeois life, for good. He divorced Lane in 1916. Before his death in 1941, he would marry three more times, eventually finding love and stability with his fourth wife, Eleanor Copenhaver.
Although his work would play a key role in the development of American fiction in the twentieth century, Anderson did not publish his first book, Windy McPherson’s Son (1916), until he was forty. In subsequent years he wrote across several genres, publishing novels, short fiction, memoirs, and collections of journalism. The 1925 novel Dark Laughter was Anderson’s only bestseller, but the short-story collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919) is far and away his most famous work. A series of linked stories that form a loosely connected novel about the inhabitants of a small Midwestern town, Winesburg, Ohio exemplifies many of the most prominent recurring features of Anderson’s work: characters struggling with the difficulties of small-town life, an emphasis on experiences of loneliness and frustration, and a lyrical writing style that attempted to capture the rhythms of human thought. In 1998, the Modern Library named Winesburg, Ohio one of the one hundred best English language novels of the twentieth century.
Anderson is generally classified as a realist writer—that is, a writer concerned with representing human life and experiences with as much verisimilitude as possible. He is often grouped with naturalist writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane, who examined the social and scientific forces that shaped and, as the naturalists believed, ultimately determined individual human lives. In the 1910s and 1920s, Anderson became a member of Dreiser’s so-called Chicago Group, joining the ranks of such influential American writers as Edgar Lee Masters and the poet Carl Sandburg. The modernist writer Gertrude Stein also exerted a powerful influence over Anderson, particularly her experimental novel Three Lives (1909). Through Stein, whom he met in Europe in 1924, Anderson met several other towering figures of the modernist movement, including the poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the novelist James Joyce. Anderson’s work, in turn, has influenced such important and varied American writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck.
“A Death in the Woods,” the title story of his 1933 anthology of short fiction, is generally considered Anderson’s finest and most characteristic short story. In it, an unnamed narrator is haunted by a memory from his childhood. In an attempt to understand the enigmatic incident, he returns to the story again and again, seeming to circle closer to the truth with each telling. In composing “A Death in the Woods,” Anderson went through a similar process. Although the story was published in 1933, Anderson had begun working on it at least seventeen years earlier. A ten-page, typewritten fragment—on the reverse side of which Anderson had drafted a portion of Winesburg, Ohio—sketches out several key elements of “A Death in the Woods,” including a narrator who witnesses an eerie scene one snowy, moonlit night involving a pack of dogs who circle around the corpse of a dead woman bearing a pack of food. He completed various other sketches and drafts in the years between the first fragment and final publication.
Anderson himself experienced many of the things that both the narrator and the old woman undergo in “A Death in the Woods.” Anderson spent time working as a laborer on the farm of a German man, and he too once had a strange encounter with a pack of dogs on a winter night in a forest. The character of old Mrs. Grimes is based, in part, on Anderson’s own silent, hardworking mother. Although the narrator of the short story is not Anderson himself, the story’s main subject—the ways in which an artist processes disjointed but powerful personal experiences through his art—certainly applies to its author, as well.